Contains minor spoilers for “Amsterdam”
For David O. Russell, the best defense is a good offense.
The director’s newest film, “Amsterdam,” scuttles through the 1930s after World War I and opens with the intertitle: “A lot of this really happened.” The frame coyly promises to skirt the boundary between life and art, to claim a proximity to truth. In hindsight, however, it anticipates the film’s defensive streak — part romp, part adage — and its catatonic attention span.
With a clutter of Dutch angles and an apparent focus on wedging as much exposition into Christian Bale’s mouth as possible, Russell unceremoniously shoves his audience into the frenetic world of Burt Berendsen (Bale), an offbeat doctor with a wobbly glass eye and a dubious medical practice that serves fellow veterans of World War I.
The war, broad and convenient, is referenced copiously. It’s the germ for Burt’s injuries, the backbone of his business, the locus for his friendship with soldier-turned-lawyer Harold Woodman (John David Washington) and the impetus for the pair’s bond with Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). As a device, it supports the expanding plot like orthodontic headgear, keeping everything in order while the audience gets a toothache.
“Amsterdam” follows Burt and Harold as they clumsily investigate the suspicious death of veteran General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.). The journey reunites them with Valerie, an old friend and wartime nurse with a penchant for making disturbing art. After the war ended, Burt, Harold and Valerie made a friendship pact and spent blissful months in Amsterdam. The pact fractured once Burt returned to the United States to be with his wife, with Harold following shortly after. Restored as a trio, Burt, Harold and Valerie navigate fraying clues and misdirections to inch closer to the truth, discovering a carnival of eccentric characters with secrets.
As the mystery develops, the film carousels through familiar faces from film, television, comedy and music with varying levels of success. Stars are smeared, not scattered. Taylor Swift, for instance, plays Liz Meekins — the wealthy and worried young lady who enlists Burt and Harold to investigate the murder of her father. With her tilt hat and belted waist, Swift acts like she’s in a regional production of “Guys and Dolls.” Her time onscreen is fortunately relieved by an oncoming car, but it sets the film off to a wobbly start.
Chris Rock, in contrast, shines in spite of the material. The standup comedian plays Milton, another veteran from Burt and Harold’s regiment with calloused wit who serves as a slot machine for woke one-liners. In one scene, for instance, Milton tells Burt, Harold and Valerie that it’s more dangerous for Black men to be suspected in a white woman’s murder than a white man’s murder; in response, he’s met with a beat of overcharged, ostensibly understanding, silence before the camera cuts and everyone leaves the room.
Rock’s remarks sink like stones because no one knows what to do with them, least of all Russell. The script burps with an impulse to objectify substantive issues, like racism and corporate greed, but lacks the creativity to do anything interesting or meaningful with them. When Russell shoots for originality, he lands on predictability.
“Amsterdam” is concerned with what it means to “live” and how this meaning changes between characters over time. To do this, the film tries to describe its characters through space. Yet, the settings are impersonal. Amsterdam, arguably the most crucial location, is without canals or culture. The scenes are shot almost entirely indoors, in bedrooms, restaurants and dance halls, which sands the city of its character. The generic depiction then deflates the film’s insistence that Amsterdam is an alternative to the industrial, dread-laden life the characters’ lead in New York. Instead of a place, Amsterdam is a placeholder — a euphemism for the past.
With over two hours of film that practically sputters out of its reel, “Amsterdam” slumps to a puzzling finish. The most entertaining characters — Tom and Libby Voze, played by an uncannily calm Rami Malek and a stuck-up Anya Taylor-Joy — are brought to justice, and all appears well. Though Bale’s seamless performance grounds the movie, Burt is a static character. He makes the same decision twice, but is forgiven the second time for no other reason than that the movie has to end. Burt rhapsodizes humanity’s optimism in an ending monologue that tumbles down the gullet like lukewarm beer. “Amsterdam” underestimates its audience’s intellect, pandering to the point of self-destruction.